Author Archive for Mark Nepo

Repeatedly We Are Asked

Read these weekly reflections on The Huffington Post and VividLife.

As human beings, we are asked to choose, more than once, if we are striving for perfection or fullness. While excellence is an admirable and useful reward for our effort in the world, our immersion of heart into whatever we are doing leads us past excellence into the experience of Oneness. This is a hard insight to open. This poem tries.

 

REPEATEDLY WE ARE ASKED

to embody or consume;
to be in kinship with everything larger
or to order and manage everything smaller.

We are asked, every day, to align or separate;
to coordinate our will with everything living
or to impose our will on everything we meet.

And not choosing is a choice. Acquiescence
is different from patience or surrender.

All this leaves us needing to know:
whether to better the song through practice
or to better ourselves through singing.

A Question to Walk With: Describe something you are practicing in your life and explore in what ways this practice is making you more skillful and in what ways your immersion of effort is making you more yourself.

The Industry of No

Read these weekly reflections on The Huffington Post and VividLife.

My new book of poems, Reduced to Joy, has just been published. The book contains seventy-three poems, retrieved and shaped over the last thirteen years, about the nature of working with what we’re given till it wears us through to joy. For the next few months, I’d like to share poems from the new book with you.
 

The greatest threshold to an awakened life is the courage to say yes. Not yes to being abused or mistreated, but yes to the authority of your own being which touches on the sea of all being. This quality of spirit is even more in need in a society that views saying no as some form of sophistication, as some necessary way to be more practical and less innocent. However, it is innocence that returns us to wonder. This poem explores the culture of no we live in.

 

The Industry of No

He was born in the river of yes

but looking for love wandered into

the industry of no, where the no-police

left warnings of don’t and the no-ministers

preached their morals of can’t. And soon,

he couldn’t help himself, he wanted to

try on no. So when his dog pawed his

shirt, he scolded her no, and when

two kids ran a shopping cart into his

parked car, he cuffed them no. And

when someone he liked started to come

close, he let her near but said he wasn’t

ready. Now he discovered there were

other ways to say no. When he was hired

as a no-engineer, he was sadly happy to work

alone. Steadily, he designed signs that said

stop and electronic guns that fired bullets

with a muffled no. The work of no kept

him very busy. If you called, you heard, “I

am the engineer of no and I am not here.

If you like, leave a no-message and I will

gladly send a no-reply.” He was flooded with

calls. The industry of no was so successful, it

had to hide its money from the government,

lest they say no. When he was promoted to

find other avenues of no, he rode no-planes

to no-cafes where inventors of no pleaded

for new no-funding. Soon, there were movies

that glorified no, and books that pondered

why the no-God was so insistent on no. And

seminars arose where no-scholars came vast

distances to say, “Yes, it has always been a

world of no.” And those specially invited

stroked their worried chins, whispering

to each other, “It is so. It is so,” as a no-

anthropologist traced the beginnings

of no. But they all went home and

dreamt of white geese flapping,

their wings parting

the ancient air.

 

A Question to Walk With: Begin to tell your own history with yes, the deeper yes to your own voice, spirit, sense of life.

 

Reduced to Joy

Read these weekly reflections on The Huffington Post and VividLife.

My new book of poems, Reduced to Joy, has just been published. The book contains seventy-three poems, retrieved and shaped over the last thirteen years, about the nature of working with what we’re given till it wears us through to joy. For the next few months, I’d like to share poems from the new book with you.

I’m coming to understand joy as the all-encompassing moment of full being that can hold all the other more fleeting feelings, like happiness, fear, confusion, worry, and anger. Though that sea of full being is always there, always carrying us, we come in and out of our awareness of it. This is the title poem from my new book, which speaks to such a moment, which is always unexpected.

 

REDUCED TO JOY

I was sipping coffee on the way to work,
the back road under a canopy of maples
turning orange. In the dip of woods, a small
doe gently leaping. I pulled over, for there
was no where else to go. She paused as if
she knew I was watching. A few orange
leaves fell around her like blessings no
one can seem to find. I sipped some
coffee, completely at peace, knowing
it wouldn’t last. But that’s alright.

We never know when we will blossom
into what we’re supposed to be. It might
be early. It might be late. It might be after
thirty years of failing at a misguided way.
Or the very first time we dare to shed
our mental skin and touch the world.

They say, if real enough, some see God
at the moment of their death. But isn’t
every fall and letting go a death? Isn’t God
waiting right now in the chill between the
small doe’s hoof and those fallen leaves?

A Question to Walk With: How would you define joy and how it presents itself, to a child?

For Joel at 94

Read Mark’s weekly reflections on The Huffington Post and VividLife.

My new book of poems, Reduced to Joy, has just been published. The book contains seventy-three poems, retrieved and shaped over the last thirteen years, about the nature of working with what we’re given till it wears us through to joy. For the next few months, I’d like to share poems from the new book with you.

I wrote this poem a few years ago to honor a friend and mentor of mine, Dr. Joel Elkes, who will be 100 years old this November. He is one of the most wholehearted people I know.

FOR JOEL AT 94

They say that miners in South America
strap small lamps around their chest, that
this works better than the light coming
from the center of your head.

They say the head can be fooled,
but the heart can’t turn without
the body. This makes me think of you
digging your way through your long life,
lighting everything with your heart.

It’s a good way to live. And when we
sit at the end of the day, our hearts
illumine the day and we see each other
in its radiance. I can tell, it reminds you
of many circles you’ve been a part of.
It’s a good way to measure time.

To make our way on Earth
by the light coming from our heart—
This is what you’ve taught us.

Is it any wonder that what you
touch, including us, glows.

A Question to Walk With: Tell the story of an elder you admire and why. If they are still alive, tell them of the impact they have had one you. Either way, tell their story to someone else to keep the character of their spirit alive.

Between the City and the Sea

Read Mark’s weekly reflections on The Huffington Post and VividLife.

My new book of poems, Reduced to Joy, has just been published. The book contains seventy-three poems, retrieved and shaped over the last thirteen years, about the nature of working with what we’re given till it wears us through to joy. For the next few months, I’d like to share poems from the new book with you.

We are constantly reminded how everything is connected. From time to time, the oddest thing will open me to this mystical fact. When former President Ford died, I was drawn into sensing what else was happening around the world at the very same moment.

BETWEEN THE CITY AND THE SEA

An old president died just hours after a young
man from Idaho was shot in his sleep in Iraq, and
now in the Sundarban east of the Himalayas, a tiger
licks the eyes of its newborn yet to see, and further east
in Vietnam, a young woman who has worked very hard
to learn how to read is reciting a sutra from Buddha,
in awe how presence moves through words across
the centuries. At the same time, an unwed mother
in Chicago thinks about stealing a blanket as
winter stiffens, and moments after this, a
manta ray in Ecuador wakes because of the
sun’s heat on its back and its sweep over coral
startles the moray back into its nook, and as the
old president’s body cools, a sergeant finds the
boy from Idaho. And just now, in Chile, a
tired couple re-see each other and make love
in the afternoon while clouds come in from the
Pacific. And just now, you stir, the dog stretches,
and far away, two stars collide, a new world forms,
and somewhere between the city and the sea, a child
is born with an untempered capacity to love. In time,
he or she will want to love us all. Remember their
face, though you have never seen it. Speak their
name, though you have never heard it. Mistake
everyone for them. Love everything in the way.

A Question to Walk With: Sit quietly, when you can, and start with where you, and slowly allow your heart to sense what else might be unfolding at the same moment everywhere else on Earth. How does allowing the presence of life in, in this way, affect you?

Discernment

Read Mark’s weekly reflections on The Huffington Post and VividLife.

My new book of poems, Reduced to Joy, has just been published. The book contains seventy-three poems, retrieved and shaped over the last thirteen years, about the nature of working with what we’re given till it wears us through to joy. For the next few months, I’d like to share poems from the new book with you.

The mind is such a gift that, unless met and directed by the heart, it will take over the show and run our lives. Then, no matter how well intended, our serious focus can narrow the things we’re looking at to a smallness that betrays their true nature. It’s always our job to meet life where it is, not to break life down so it can enter our small room. This poem explores the difference.

 

Discernment

The trouble with the mind

is that it sees like a bird

but walks like a man.

 

And things at the surface

move fast, needing to be

gathered. While things

at center move slow,

needing to be

perceived.

 

What I mean is

if you want to see the

many birds, you can

gather them in a cage

and wonder why

they won’t fly.

 

Or you can go to

the wetlands, birding

in silence before

the sun comes up.

 

It’s the same

with the things

we love or think.

 

We can frame them

in pretty cages or follow

them into the wild meadow

till they stun us with the

spread of their magnificent

wings.

 

A Question to Walk With: Are you looking at something in life in too narrow a way? How can you expand the way you are relating to this?

 

Way of the Dolphin

Read Mark’s weekly reflections on The Huffington Post and VividLife.

My new book of poems, Reduced to Joy, has just been published. The book contains seventy-three poems, retrieved and shaped over the last thirteen years, about the nature of working with what we’re given till it wears us through to joy. For the next few months, I’d like to share poems from the new book with you.

It was years ago that I learned that our job as spirits in bodies is to let our spirit rise from within to meet and inhabit the world, every chance we get. It was walking along the Battery in Charleston that this all came back to me, so very clearly, while sighting a dolphin.

WAY OF THE DOLPHIN

Standing in the harbor, these slick
wonders slip their fins in and out
of early sun. I close my eyes and re-
member being wheeled into surgery
all those years ago; believing my job
was to meet my surgeon at the sur-
face, so the rib he had to remove
would slip out, like a dolphin of
bone, as soon as he would cut me.

I’ve learned that everything that
matters goes the way of the dolphin:
drifting most of the time out of
view, breaking surface when
we least expect it.

And our job—in finding God, in
being God; in finding truth, in
being truth; in finding love, in
being love—is to meet the world
at the surface where Spirit slips
out through every cut.

A Question to Walk With: Describe one way in which you are being asked to let your spirit meet the world.

The Purpose of Fishing

Read Mark’s weekly reflections on The Huffington Post.

Fishing is a great way to relate to the unknown. It’s compelling and surprising that we always return to places where we’ve caught something to wait, when there’s no reason to think that anything will ever break surface in the same place twice. But we wait and try to sense what is under the surface.

 

The Purpose of Fishing

It’s hard to say. We gather the rod and

bait and clean the line, the way we get

degrees. Then cast our line the way we

cast ambition. Then we wait. Until we

think it’s all for nothing. If lucky, we out-

wait the glare of failure. Now it seems just

being here, rocking in the stillness, is the

catch. Once we stop waiting, we can hear

our heart beat like a small drum between

the gusts of wind. And then, and only then,

some big, shiny, armless thing might break

surface. But the lightweight rod is sleeping

out of reach. So we grab for what moves in

the deep with our hands. All of this, to get

us wet in a baptism no one can name.

 

A Question to Walk With: Discuss with a friend what you think the metaphor of fishing is opening up here and what it might be saying about how we find meaning in our days.

Meeting My Selves

Read Mark’s weekly reflections on The Huffington Post.

We are all blessed to live more than one life within our one life. All of us challenged to grow out of one self and into another. I am not the same person I was ten years ago, nor was that self the same as the one I inhabited twenty years ago. We blossom and outgrow selves the way butterflies emerge from cocoons. Except that being human, we have the chance to emerge from many cocoons. This poem tries to look back at the many selves I’ve lived in.

MEETING MY SELVES

I came upon a younger me. He was pressing
against everything. Seeing what would hold
and what would give way. What gave way he
thought weaker. What resisted he thought
oppressive. I was embarrassed at how little
I knew. Then I stumbled on an artist obsess-
sed with the fire of creation. He thought it a
sacred obligation. He threw everything into the
flames. Those close thought him an arsonist. I
felt guilty for those I burned against their will.
Midway I found a fish-like man whose chest was
pried open like a ragged shell. This was me tossed
ashore by cancer. I felt grateful for the cracking of
my stubbornness with time enough to be. Along
the way I dreamt of the old holy man. I can’t say
he was me but I have met him many times. He
stays in the world though he faces the interior.
Whatever the difficulty, he stops to bless what-
ever is near. When I was near death, he stopped
to bless me. I have searched for him ever since.
When I close my fear, I feel his hands entering
my hands. When I close my worry, I feel his
eyes parting the curtain of my eyes.


A Question to Walk With: Describe at least one former self and how you have grown from that into the self you are right now.

Tendencies

Read Mark’s weekly reflections on The Huffington Post.

We are all born with tendencies, inclinations toward different ways of being in the world. Some of us like to put things together. Some of us like to take things apart. Some of us like to have everything in order. Some of us are suffocated if everything seems too neat. Some of us feel completely who we are when with others. Some of us only feel this thorough alone, in nature. The ancient Hindu notion of karma speaks to the law of tendencies. This profound view of life is often misunderstood. This reflection explores the notion of karma and our human tendencies.

The popular understanding of karma is rather like a westernized cartoon of a very profound aspect of the spiritual condition of being human. Often oversimplified, karma is rendered in broad strokes by westerners as living many lives under the threat that if you’re bad in one life, you’ll be punished in the next—or the reverse. But let’s look more closely.

The word karma comes from the Sanskrit root kri, meaning to do; kri, in turn, is from the Pali, kamma, meaning action, effect, destiny, the work of fate. Weaving these notions into their largest meaning, the original Hindu sense of karma refers to the sum of all the consequences of a person’s actions in this or a previous life. We must consider the phrase “previous life” in various ways: literally, as well as referring to different passages within a single life of transformation on earth. With this in mind, we are responsible for the impact of our actions over time. Once we’ve formed our tendencies to act, we have the option of following them or resisting them.

This freedom to follow our tendencies or not resides in the well of what the Hindus call atman, or the breath of spirit and consciousness within. Our surrender to God is believed to be essential in dissolving the bonds of destructive tendencies. And so obeying the breath of spirit and consciousness within (our atman, or the God within) is believed to be instrumental in creating life-nourishing tendencies. Given that what is not integrated is repeated, destructive tendencies, if not faced and dismantled, repeat themselves, not only throughout one life but throughout many lives. This is the psycho-spiritual dynamic at the heart of karma. And no one is exempt from it.

So the challenge for each of us centers on understanding our own eternal journey in terms of which of our personal tendencies are life-nourishing and which are destructive, which are we upholding and which are we resisting. Paradoxically, only being human on earth can offer up the experience of spirit necessary to alter our tendencies.

My first encounter with facing my own tendencies surfaced abruptly when waiting for surgery to determine if I had brain cancer. Four or five of us were all lined up in the anteroom of the operating room, and  one  by  one  the  masked  angels  of  this medical underworld were hooking us up. My fear kept building. I thought I might explode. Next to me was a young woman, a poor, innocent, inexperienced being. She was terrified of the needle that would make her sleep. So terrified, she moaned before the needle touched her skin. Her moan was piercing. I reached for her but was tethered by my own IV. But this was her karma. The needle wouldn’t take, and they had to try four, five, six times until it settled in a vein. I lay there on my back, my last pouch of innocence torn. And I thought, “Who will suture this?” I watched her moan and thought, “What on earth is my karma? What do I fear and need to relinquish so deeply that I am here?”

I had always needed closure, had always planned the days minutely in advance, but as I struggled with cancer, it became clear—there would be no closure. It made me wonder if there ever is closure or is it just a fabrication like time, a rope of mind which humans need to braid and knot in order to get by. But there I was. The terrified young woman was wheeled off. And then they came for me. As I was rolled into the operating room, as I began to drift, I remember pressing the question: is lack of closure my needle, which—because I fear it—must be thrust at me four, five, six times until it settles in my spirit’s vein?

Up to that point in my life, I had thought of hardships as inexplicable events happening to me and others and viewed strength as the ability to endure these unwanted circumstances. Such endurance is certainly a strength. But for the first time, laying there next to this terrified young woman, waiting my turn, my sense of all this changed. Suddenly I understood strength in another way, as the character revealed by facing what comes our way—until our tendencies and habits are revealed to us, until they wrestle or dance with us, until we are worn into who we are born to be.

A Question to Walk With: Describe one life-nourishing tendency you have and one life-draining tendency you have. What can you do to encourage the what is nourishing and what can you do to lessen what is life-draining?